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20 February 2019

The Independent Group have an Anna Soubry problem

If they want to succeed, they need to at least sound like an anti-system party. 

By Stephen Bush

The Independent Group is a populist party, and if it wants to succeed it will have to remain one. I don’t mean that in either a positive or a pejorative sense: it’s just an undeniable truth of their overall messaging and what the electorally lucrative hunting ground for such a party is.

The approach on Monday, when seven Labour MPs announced the formation of the new grouping, was effective because it hit a few simple beats repeatedly: Labour has changed, and for the worse, politics is broken, and only we can solve it, etc.

Today three Conservative MPs jumped ship to join them. Two of them – Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen – essentially sung from a similar hymnsheet: that the promise of the Conservative Party they joined in 2009 and 2011 had not been fulfilled in office, with Allen reserving particular criticism for the failed universal credit programme and the multiple secretaries of state for work and pensions that have left their posts during its troubled rollout.

Looking back through a transcript of the two and the seven it would be hard to immediately guess who had left which party. There were no such difficulties with Soubry, whose tone and message was very much “I’m a Conservative who doesn’t like Brexit.”

The real difficulty came in the Q&A in which she endorsed George Osborne’s tenure as Chancellor of Exchequer and praised the coalition government as a good thing for Britain.

Whatever your views about the coalition, the popular verdict is clear: most people regard it as a bad time for the United Kingdom which is why essentially all voters were disappointed with the hung parliament in 2017 and essentially all voters started that campaign wanting to avoid a hung parliament above all else.

Bluntly, if there was the electoral space for a party of the centre that supported the coalition, the Independent Group wouldn’t be beating the Liberal Democrats in every poll.

It’s early days and what Soubry’s remarks reminded me of was Cathy Newman’s interview with Tim Farron shortly after he became Liberal Democrat leader in 2015. His party paid no political price for his views on homosexuality in 2015, but the same questions he struggled to answer shortly after becoming leader wrecked his general election campaign in 2017.

The Independent Group would be wise to avoid Soubry and the coalition exacting a similar price from them at the next election.